India’s ODI cricket has not been their strongest suit for a while now, in fact since the last 50-over World Cup in 2019. For the first three years, the team managements under coach Ravi Shastri and then Rahul Dravid treated the format as just a means of getting some game time. The two back-to-back T20 World Cups in 2021 and 2022 had to take precedence.
In pursuit of quick fixes in the blink-and-miss format, Indian cricket sort of turned a blind eye to a missing link that has persisted in their ODI cricket even before the 2019 World Cup: the middle order.
The confusion over who bats at No. 4 in ODIs is a chronic problem now. The problem has been compounded with the inability of the middle order to accelerate enough to take the game away from the opposition.
Hardik Pandya’s strike rate has come down to 93 in the last 16 ODIs. Ravindra Jadeja has been striking at an appalling 64.28 in 15 games in 2023 while KL Rahul has scored at an average rate of just about 90 in his last 17 matches.
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These are India’s first choice, designated No. 5, 6 and 7 for the World Cup. Rahul and Hardik’s averages have seen a spike, though. India’s ODI defeats over the last four years have had a lot to do with not putting enough runs on the board. It may be noted that Hardik and Rahul have assumed lead roles to anchor the innings as captains for their respective franchises.
Indian cricket swears by brand IPL. Yet, their ODI power-hitting numbers are not up to industry standards. Successful ODI teams like England have stuck to T20-like hard-hitting right through the 50 overs. It’s now about setting the pace and maintaining it right through the innings. It’s an age where the likes of Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Liam Livingstone, Heinrich Klassen, Mitch Marsh and Marcus Stoinis are let loose and asked to unabashedly wield their bats.
“One thing I need in this team is everyone to be ready to bat anywhere. It is critical for Team India not just this format but any format. Cricket is moving in a different direction. As you can step up at any position, no one should say I am good at this or that position,” captain Rohit Sharma had declared in August.
Having said that, India had to resort to Suryakumar Yadav as the backup to their middle-order despite his below-par ODI returns. He is a beast in T20 cricket and the team management has identified that he needs to be given shorter periods of time to bat in order to maximize his abilities. Ishan Kishan, interestingly, is the other backup who is supposed to cover for openers and middle-order batters.
“When we talk about depth in batting, that No. 9, No. 8 positions become very crucial,” has been Rohit’s observation.
Interestingly, the declining strike rates of India’s designated power hitters could be attributed to the lack of depth in the batting. As the innings gets longer, conserving wickets takes precedence. India’s wobbly lower order doesn’t let them embrace the boom-or-burst template of batting, which is an irony since the brands of these contemporary cricketers have been built around a fearless in-your face approach.
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Over the last two months, there has been much emphasis on adding depth to India’s batting. The cumulative bat ting ability after No. 7 practically nose-dives. Hence, Shardul Thakur and Axar Patel’s names were bandied around as saviours.
Ironically, the team has been looking at the batting prowess of frontline bowlers while forming their team. Yuzvendra Chahal was left behind in the race when Axar injured his hamstring and Ashwin’s steady batting won him a place in the eventual World Cup squad.
The team management had banked on the game time in Asia Cup and the two warm-up games to test its first XI. Rain has not allowed them to check how their first-choice players complement each other in one game. The team has been built on reputation. Dravid will hope his men find their core and pack a punch in the coming weeks.